Hate the crimes, not the criminal?

I have a weird relationship with the concept of ‘hate crimes’. On the one hand, we ought to punish people for their behaviours, rather than their beliefs. The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience. Yes, once conscience moves beyond the boundaries of one’s head it is subject to the rule of law, but adding punishment for believing the wrong thing still seems at odds with that principle. On the other hand, sometimes things like this happen:

Two suspects arrested in a shooting spree that that left three people dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma have confessed, police documents filed in court said. An affidavit filed on Monday said 19-year-old Jake England confessed to shooting three people and 32-year-old Alvin Watts confessed to shooting two.


“There is a lot of media interest in this country about whether it was a hate crime and the police are very keen to play that down,” [Al Jazeera reporter John] Terrett said. Police have yet to describe the attacks, which took place on Friday morning, as racially motivated, although the suspects are white and all five victims were African Americans.

Police are also examining whether England was trying to avenge the death of his father, who was killed two years ago. “He [England] wrote what looks like a race hate rant on Friday, the day of the shootings, on his Facebook page, referring to the killing of his father at the hands of an African American man who wasn’t charged with murder or attempted murder,” Terrett said.

Some of you will note the similarities between this story and one that I’ve highlighted previously, where a group of teenagers drove into a neighbouring county to randomly kill a black man, running over the first one they could find with their truck. In this case, two men decided to drive around Tulsa and fire bullets at black people, one apparently in a shockingly misguided attempt to get revenge against the entire black race for conspiring to kill his father. One wonders whether or not Mr. England would be supportive of his own victims driving around Portland and picking off as many white people as they could in order to get their own vengeance.

I suppose I could make some kind of snarky comment here about “post-racial” America and segue into a diatribe about how racism is still very much a way of life in the American South, but there is another aspect to this story that I think needs to be explored in order to understand why hate crime laws exist:

The attacks had alarmed many in the predominantly black north Tulsa area, and local community leaders met earlier in an effort to calm worries about the shootings. Terrett, reporting from Washington, DC on Sunday, pointed out that Tulsa’s black community has been “terrified” by the shootings.

“There has been two days of sheer terror for the people of the north side of Tulsa which is mostly an African-American area. They have changed their daily routines because they were so terrified by the crimes,” he said.

So there are gradations of hate crimes – some are more blatant than others – but this is a pretty clear-cut example of a series of murders that were random in every way except for race. This was not crime committed against these people who just so happened to be black, based on a personal vendetta or an altercation in which tempers were heated and derogatory phrases bubbled out unbidden (which, I suppose, would be the borderline case) – no, this was a crime intentionally committed against the entire black community of Tulsa. There was no warning, no discussion, no threat – just bullets. Punishing these two men for the murders is, of course, de rigeur, but one’s sense of justice asks the question: is there no price to pay for terrorizing an entire community? Is there no ability to make the strength of the charge proportionate to the full extent of the crime?

My compromise in this issue has always been to identify crimes as hate crimes, and give judges wide discretion when determining sentence length, but much like any time I am forced to compromise I end up feeling dirty.

Of course, here at home we have a story that is equal parts similar and different:

After two years of increases, Canadians reported fewer hate crimes in 2010, especially in Vancouver and southern Ontario, Statistics Canada said Thursday. Most of the decrease was a result of fewer reported violent hate crimes, Statscan said in releasing its latest annual survey for hate-motivated offences.


The survey noted that black Canadians, who were targeted in about 20 per cent of reported incidents in 2010, only make up 2.5 per cent of the population. There were 1,401 hate crimes reported to police in 2010, or a rate of 4.1 hate crimes per 100,000 population. While the 2010 rate was 18 per cent lower than the previous year’s rate, it remained the second highest per capita rate since national figures started being systematically compiled in 2006.

Of course, as I said the last time I published a story about this kind of report, these kinds of statistics have to be taken with a serious grain of skepticism, since there will always be a gap between the number of reported hate crimes and committed hate crimes, but it is encouraging to see that, if that number has any meaning whatsoever, the frequency of hate-based attacks (the majority of crimes are classified as ‘mischief’, which means things like graffiti – 33% were violent crimes) appears to be dropping. But still we see the existence of an eight-fold race-based disparity. As a black Canadian, I suppose I should take a mixed sort of comfort in the reduction in the absolute number (the fact that I’m a middle-class cis gendered man certainly helps a lot too), but the results are still pretty scary.

I don’t know what the answer is to how to respond to crimes that are clearly motivated by hate. Whatever that answer is, however, ignorance of the fact that hate crimes still exist (or complacency about that fact) cannot be part of it.

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  1. jamessweet says

    One wonders whether or not Mr. England would be supportive of his own victims driving around Portland and picking off as many white people as they could in order to get their own vengeance.

    Nitpick: Jake England is native American.

  2. jamessweet says

    Oh God, sorry about the link. I thought I remembered hearing that, and just Googled for “jake england native american” and selected the first news-y looking link that supported the assertion. I didn’t actually read it first.

    Uh, but yeah… Anyway, here’s a better link. I guess the police report refers to him as white.

  3. says

    “The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience.”

    I don’t think it’s because it was motivated by a disliked idea, but because someone acted on their ideas and beliefs alone – that someone thought their idea gave them reason or even the right to commit a violent crime. That’s a bit different from stealing because you were hungry, or getting into a fight because you were drunk, and it’s also different from refusing to say certain words or serving in the military – it has little to do with conscience and everything with intolerance, and IMHO it should be punished.

  4. jamessweet says

    As far as the central topic, my take on it previously has been that ideally a hate crime would be prosecuted just like any other crime, and the “hate” part of it comes into play during sentencing — but that it makes sense to have federal hate crime laws in cases where the individual jurisdictions may be inclined to under-prosecute or not prosecute at all. In other words, if you a white guy kills a black guy in the boonies of Alabama (sorry, Alabamians), the local police, prosecutors, and judge may be more sympathetic to the killer than to the victim, so federal hate crime laws provide a means for the jurisdiction to be transferred to the federal government where prosecutors will not be so sympathetic.

    You raise an excellent point with the following, however:

    one’s sense of justice asks the question: is there no price to pay for terrorizing an entire community?

    Interesting. A part of me wants to say that this is still ideally handled by either sentencing laws or different charges, e.g. could this be handled as a terrorism case? Also, I have to ask, didn’t the DC snipers “terrorize an entire community”? And yet I believe they were charged with murder and weapons charges, rather than a hate crime.

    In any case, I share your ambivalence… from an idealistic standpoint, hate crime legislation is all kinds of wrong, and I am only “mostly” sold that it makes sense practically.

  5. Katkinkate says

    Premeditated murder and terrorism. There’s a lot of people out there that really hate others for various reasons. Most of them don’t resort to murder or other illegal activities (or at least aren’t caught) and could not be charged for their hate alone in a court of law. Hate isn’t illegal. Murder is murder no matter the motivation.

  6. says

    I think the concept that we take somebody’s motivations into account when judging their crime is well established and a good thing. I think most people do agree that a person who killed their father because of the money is to judge differently than somebody who killed their father because he abused them as a child and is now threatening to abuse their kid. Still they both killed their father.
    I thoroughly dislike the idea of punishment although I understand the need of justice for the victims of crime. But the goal of the judicial system should be to prevent future harm and this may mean that you have to seperate the criminal for quite some time from society. And I think that at this point the question of “hate crime” plays a role: If somebody is willing to harm another person for the sole reason that they happen to belong to a group, that means that this person is highly dangerous to have around, unlike the person who killed their rapist father.

  7. Gregory in Seattle says

    The doctrine that intent influences the severity of a crime is foundational to English (and thus Canadian and American) jurisprudence. To consider just one example: murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide. In all of these, someone ends up dead. But committing an act that one knows could lead to serious bodily harm and does is considered a lesser offense than killing someone in violent rage, which is considered a lesser offense than planning out and killing someone in cold blood.

    The idea behind hate crimes is based on this doctrine of severity.

    By definition, hate crimes target a community, even though only an individual perceived as a member of the community is directly victimized. When the KKK burns a cross in the front yard of a black family, the actual target is all black families in the county. When bashers attack and rape a lesbian because she is a lesbian, the actual target is the whole gay community. When vandals spraypaint swastikas on a synagogue and smash its windows, actual target is the Jewish congregants. These are not individual crimes, but acts of terrorism against many people. The law allows acts agaisnt a community to be treated more severely than acts against an individual.

    The question at hand regarding England and Watts is: did they deliberately target African Americans? This goes to the issue of intent, a key point of prosecution. If they did, and prosecutors determine that the reason was to terrorize African Americans that they did not kill, then their actions meet the definition of a hate crime and they will be prosecuted for the greater crime.

  8. says

    Alongside sentencing, I think the other place that needs to be looked at is parole and release. If our prison system is supposed to be rehabilitory (it barely is, I know) and someone is in there for having committed a hate-based crimed, then ideally some sort of progress on the motivations underpinning the crime would have to be made before being the granting any sort of release. It doesn’t make sense to me to release violent criminals from prison when they can still justify to themselves the motivations behind their crimes.

  9. jamessweet says

    If this is really the rationale, than perhaps the broader criteria would be “murder with intent to terrorize” or “murder with intent to intimidate”. Again I am thinking of the DC snipers… There’s could not really be called a “hate crime”, yet the intent was clearly to terrorize an entire community. Wouldn’t that qualify as well?

    (To be clear, I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate here… I generally support hate crime legislation, but I have reservations…)

  10. says

    I have to agree with a lot of commenters here on a subject that makes me generally uncomfortable as the lines are so fuzzy and nuanced I fear misspeaking.

    Hate crimes are designed to terrorize not just the person they are committed against but also the group they belong to. We typically punish terrorism in a more severe way than we do other types of crimes. To call it a hate crime is to perhaps put it somewhere between domestic terrorism (which is typically carried out on a group designed to terrify a larger group) and a crime of need/oppertunity/passion (which is typically carried out on one to a few people with the intent being somthing other than to terrify a group of people). Hate crimes take in elements of both. Typically they are carried out on one to a few people who all are representative of the group they wish to instill fear in. It seems reasonable that our laws and sentencing reflect the larger effect that hate crimes have on the individual communities.

    That being said, I am still uncomfortable with assuming that judges and juried can divine motivations

  11. says


    That’s what the trial and defense is for. He defends his side of what his motivations are, the court asserts that they think he had another if it disagrees and the jury is to conclude which is more believable.

    In the Ravi case in NJ for example the jury had to not only decide guilt/innocence but if each charge counted as a biased act. Now that one is on much shakier grounds because it was clear that it targeted ONLY one person, but that he wouldn’t have been a target if not for his sexuality

  12. Michael says

    Well, there’s usually already laws in place that cover what are seen as more traditional terrorist acts. Most hate crime legislation simply adds crimes motivated by bigotry to that list.

    More generally, I think Gregory’s first point is really all that needs to be said as regards hate crime legislation. We have always taken motivation into account when it comes to crime. When Ian says “The very idea of punishing behaviour a little extra because it was motivated by an idea we dislike seems to stand in stark contrast to the idea of freedom of conscience,” I cringe a bit, because that’s exactly what every common-law state has done for centuries. The belief that we can figure out what motivates people to commit crimes, and that this motivation should have some impact in how crimes are punished, is one of the basic building blocks of the Western legal system. Hate crimes legislation is simply politicians attempting to improve the way that our justice system interprets those motivations and pushing back against some of the ingrained prejudices that exist within said justice system.

  13. troll says

    In other words, punishing a hate crime more harshly than it’s non-ideological equivalent is logically consistent with punishing a premeditated murder more harshly than a murder that was not premeditated? I like that reasoning.

  14. says

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear because I get frustrated typing on my phone. If the motivations can be shown pretty well in court then I am not so worried but that is not always the case. I do like the fact that at least in some trials the option to address it as a hate crime exists seperate from the primary charges. That can do a lot toward ensuring that only crimes based on hate are procecuted as hate crimes as well as a lot toward not expecting mind reading powers out of juries. I am unsure if separating them is the common way to try hate crimes now or not but it should be.

  15. Raul says

    I disagree…Sam Harris has told us that some beliefs are so bad that it may be ethical to kill people for them…The End of Faith, pages 51-52

  16. says

    Quoting chapter and verse doesn’t really go over well with this crowd. Just FYI.

    Sam Harris says a lot of things. I do not agree with many of them. I’d have to hear his explanation, but I can’t think of any beliefs so bad that I would advocate killing that pre-empts action on the part of the believer.

  17. Bachalon says

    Actually, that’s what hate crime are: terrorism by another name, but we don’t want to call it that and have had to classify it as something else.

    Hate crime legislation goes back a long way actually, Dave Neiwert had a chapter on it in “Death on the Fourth of July.” If you do a search for “lynching is but murder” you can find a bit of it on google books.

  18. says

    I always take that sort of thing as a challenge, but I can’t think of one for this. Even the usual ludicrous hypotheticals involving tramcars and ticking timebombs don’t seem to help. Person X has belief Y, which leads inexorably to action Z, which is so very very bad that it can’t be allowed to happen (nukes! plagues!), and there’s also no way to prevent it short of killing person X. Ummm. Nope. Can’t do it.

  19. says

    I often hear that there is some problem with the idea of “hate crimes”, but I rarely hear anyone explain why- except to make some vague reference to “thought crimes”.

    You seem on the fence about the status of a hate crime in your first paragraph, and since I have come to respect your opinion over the last few months, I’d like to ask you why you feel torn over this. As a previous commenter pointed out, it seems a logical extension of Mens Rea that is the basis of our entire criminal justice system.

    What gives?

  20. says

    My uneasiness stems from the conflict between the idea of freedom of conscience and the punishment of holding unpopular ideas. In, for example, a theocratic state, I could be punished for a ‘hate crime’ if I committed some offense the state church, with an added blasphemy charge for my trouble.

    Mens Rea, as far as I understand it, refers to intent, rather than to belief. If hate crimes were punished on the basis of the intent to affect the entire community, I would be far more at ease. As it stands, I am unclear as to whether this is the case (and how one would go about demonstrating this in an evidence-based fashion), or if it is simply considered a hate crime if the victim is a member of a disadvantaged group. I will have to consult with a lawyer friend.

  21. ender says

    Speaking from the U.S., I don’t really like hate crime legislation… it smacks too much of thoughtcrime. Also, religion is a protected category under hate crime legislation in the U.S. This means that something as banal as anti-christian graffiti could be construed as a hate crime, something that is directed not at a minority group, but at one of the power centers… And then there’s the whole potential for anti-white hate crimes to be prosecuted, which would likely end up being a travesty.

    While I do find the argument that hate crimes can cause suffering for entire communities to be compelling in a way, I lack any faith that U.S. legal and justice systems can handle the responsibility of creating and enforcing such laws… so that gets me back to near-absolute freedom of conscience and speech.

  22. tariqata says

    The very recent murder of Raymond Taavel in Halifax might be an example to watch. As I understand the currently available details, a prominent gay activist was killed, allegedly by someone who did not know him, after he intervened in a fight. In this case, Taavel’s membership and prominence in a disadvantaged group so far seems to be a coincidence, rather than a motivating factor in the killing, and I wouldn’t expect a hate crime charge unless new evidence emerges.

    As an example of a hate crime charge in Canada, the brothers who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple in Nova Scotia spring to mind; they were charged with and convicted for inciting racial hatred, on the grounds that burning a cross victimised both that family and the community at large.

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